Left: Ron Mariano smiles during a House Democrats caucus Wednesday after being nominated for another term as speaker. Right: Senate President Karen Spilka wields the gavel shortly after being reelected to lead her chamber Wednesday. Photos by Chris Lisinski | State House News Service

There was never much doubt that House and Senate Democrats would return Ron Mariano and Karen Spilka to the top posts in the legislaure for the two-year term that started Wednesday, but the occasion did produce glimpses into the policy areas where each veteran legislative leader will attempt to wield their supermajority margins in the coming months.

The pair of Democrats both mentioned some common goals, yet Mariano later in the day signaled he is still crafting his agenda and has not yet made a decision on some high-profile issues, like whether or how to return to the tax relief debate lawmakers spiked when they learned Beacon Hill was on the hook for nearly $3 billion in mandatory tax rebates.

Both Mariano and Spilka cruised back to the top posts in the House and Senate, the second straight full term as speaker for Mariano and the third straight full term as Senate president for Spilka.

The two legislative leaders voiced mutual interest Wednesday in addressing the slow-burning crisis in the early education and child care sector, where providers are coping with widespread staffing shortages, workers are languishing on low wages and families are struggling to pay for care, if they can even find available slots.

Mariano Hasn’t ‘Formed An Agenda’ for Tax Relief

Although he mentioned several topics with varying degrees of detail during his speech, Mariano later on Wednesday was far less committal about the course he would chart when it comes to tax relief.

Both branches voted last summer in favor of authorizing hundreds of millions of dollars per year in tax relief for renters, seniors, caregivers and others plus reforms to the estate tax. After they were blindsided by the late-July emergence of nearly $3 billion owed back to taxpayers under a 1986 voter-approved tax cap law, legislative leaders this fall spliced tax relief out of the economic development bill that Baker signed.

Asked Wednesday afternoon how he expected the debate to move forward, Mariano – who served as speaker last term as well – replied, “I just got sworn in.”

“I haven’t thought about any of that stuff. I will think about it as we approach the new year,” he told reporters. “We have a lot of organization and stuff to do. We haven’t formed an agenda. I don’t have any chairmen.”

Pressed on whether he is still committed to delivering tax relief this session, Mariano said, “I think we’re going to look at where we are economically and we’ll make a decision.”

Spilka said during her speech that she remains “committed to enacting permanent progressive tax relief, which will provide tangible benefits to low- and middle-income families, seniors and residents.”

“I am hopeful that the legislature will pass this soon after this new year starts,” she said.

No Details to Back Up Transit, Housing Pledges

Safe, reliable public transit and affordable housing featured as other common priorities flagged by Mariano and Spilka in their start-of-term speeches Wednesday, though neither offered much detail on how they want to achieve those goals.

“While this is certainly not an issue that the Legislature can tackle alone, it’s the responsibility of all public officials in Massachusetts to help the challenges facing the MBTA,” Mariano said.

Spilka encouraged senators to “put our minds and hearts together to solve our continuing housing crisis,” focusing the crux of her comments about both housing and transportation on affordability and accessibility.

“We must also find the will and the way to expand safe, reliable and affordable public transit throughout the commonwealth,” Spilka said. “We must seize the opportunity given to us by the people of the commonwealth through the passage of the Fair Share Amendment to build a transportation system that is safe first and foremost, but also accessible, sustainable, connected and regionally equitable.”

Much like the strained child care sector, prominent failures at the MBTA and a housing market scorched by rising prices and tight inventory both continue to stifle Bay Staters.

Amid these ongoing crises, Spilka announced a major education initiative. Long a supporter of investments in public education, Spilka said Wednesday she plans this session to pursue free community college for all students. Her pledge was met with applause in the Senate chamber.

“It’s beyond time,” she said. “Let’s make it free.”

Spilka isn’t the only one with her eyes on investments in public higher education as revenue from the Question 4 surtax on the state’s wealthiest starts to hit state coffers. The Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers, as part of a coalition that has deemed itself Higher Ed For All, started planning their offensive for increased funds to the state’s community colleges, state universities and UMass schools in December.

Meanwhile, the state’s Board of Higher Education plans to use this session to push for doubling the amount of state-funded financial aid for public higher education students to $400 million a year.

Few Specifics from Spilka, Mariano on Transit, Housing, Tax Relief

by State House News Service time to read: 3 min